Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil, Part 2

This continues part 1 . . .

4. This is closely related to no. 2, but now restricted only to one's own self. Notice carefully the interior situation of your own person in regard to doing bad things--those circumstances when you have done something wrong and you are aware that you did something wrong. If it were true that the universal human moral code that identifies what we recognize as "good" vs. "bad" human actions were merely a matter of practical and utilitarian observation, then our own personal lives do not make sense. Think carefully about your own experience of temptation and giving in to doing something you know is ultimately bad in the final analysis (though you probably have some justification based on a lower, more superficial good). It is true in my own life, and it is manifestly also true for others, that we often do bad things that we don't really want to do, and yet we find ourselves doing them anyways. This situation has to be explained in order that any particular viewpoint about the true nature of human life might be considered reasonable. With careful analysis, I came to realize that this seemingly simple (though so often frustrating) fact about human life--that we sometimes commit evil that we do not want to do--makes a merely pragmatic and natural explanation of the universal moral nature of mankind unreasonable, even irrational. It calls out for a hard-hitting question that a pragmatist has no answer for: If choosing good acts and shunning the bad were only a result of making conclusions based upon observations and experience of what works well for an ordered society and what doesn't, then why, oh why, do we still sometimes do what we know on the deepest level of significance that we should not? This makes no sense from an exclusively pragmatic viewpoint. In other words, if it were true that the interior urgings that prompt me to act in certain ways were only shaped by the conclusions that I have reached as a result of experience and reason I ought to be able to do what I know to be right--every single time! But, in fact, I don't. WHY??? If I know that certain actions are bad (whether of lesser or greater moral gravity) and my interior motivations were impacted only by practical reasoning, I should have no trouble simply not doing what I have identified as bad actions. All that should be required to avoid them, is simply to have categorized them as bad. But this is not real life. We still find ourselves seemingly pulled against our best judgment at times to do things we know we will regret, that harm the social order rather than up-build it. If life worked on solely utilitarian and practical principles, this would not be the case. Yet it is. Therefore, I concluded that a solely practical and utilitarian explanation of the reality of human moral life as it actually exists, is highly irrational.

And so, I came to realize that an exclusively natural, pragmatic approach to explaining morally relevant human action simply fails to explain human life as it really is in two very important arenas: in regard to the most heinous, depraved and despicable evil actions done by others, and in regard to the interior reality that I, myself, (as is true for each individual person) cannot always successfully avoid doing the bad things that I nonetheless know I should not do. Think deeply about these facts of life. Ponder them. Question them. I found that when I did so, I had no choice but to consider the pragmatic explanation of our moral nature as human persons an indisputable failure. And this, most especially when pondering the true character of evil acts as committed by others and ourselves.

Continued in part 3 . . .

Monday, August 30, 2010

Conversion by Way of Evil

A frend of mine asked me to write about this, so here goes. . .

As some reading this blog may already know, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. Although (thanks be to God) I was  baptized a Christian as an infant, as I became a teenager and then an adult, my personal belief about God was agnostic.  I thought that if a person was logical and scientific in his thinking, there was no way he could be certain that God existed. If God were real, we could only guess about him from a distance, never knowing anything with conviction. This was my personal belief about God well into my twenty's. Because of this, I did not attend church on my own. I realized that it would have been a rather false way of acting to be present in a church for the ostensible purpose of worshiping a God whom I wasn't even sure existed, and even less did I think that God (if he were real) might have wanted anything to do with me personally.

And then God came very surprisingly and unexpectedly into my life in an extremely real way. But I want to write now simply about the very beginning of this major change in my life, the change from being agnostic to being completely certain, in every fiber of my being, that God is real and that not only I, but human persons in general are open to God and can indeed become certain about his reality. And that this God is not a distant God, but that He created us out of love and for love and bends down to help us follow the path of Godly wisdom.

And this conversion began, for me, by way of evil. Let me explain. . .

It has to do with morality--the reality of a universal human moral compass. I have always believed (based on human experience, observation, self-knowledge, and philosophical reflection) that human beings have a fundamental moral compass inside of us; we have a basic, bedrock orientation to want to do what we understand to be good, and to avoid what we understand to be bad (i,e, evil). And not only do we have a moral compass differentiating morally relevant acts into categories of good and evil but, at the most fundamental level of life, setting aside matters of less significance, what we recognize as good and as evil seems to be universal to all mankind. Who thinks murder is good? What culture sees lying as acceptable? Who has no problem with someone stealing their property? Such things, and others, are held to be bad by human beings everywhere.

It may not be obvious, but this sort of thinking is a very important crack (at least it was for me) in opening a doorway in the human soul to come to know God. If you firmly deny anything like a commonly shared moral compass that all human beings possess, this train of thought may not have an impact on you. But, if you are a person who, as I did, accepts that there is such a shared moral tendency within us, you might find this line of thinking resonates with you.

I used to think that our moral nature as human beings was thoroughly explainable simply upon pragmatic and utilitarian grounds. My thinking went something like this. By nature we are communal creatures and we need to live in society with other human beings. In order to live in a society that functions well and does not descend into chaos, we have to follow certain moral standards. We quickly learn what these standards are (e.g. don't kill, don't steal, don't lie) and abide by them for the sake of being able to have the sort of human community that is necessary for the support of a healthy, happy human life.

This approach has a certain tidy reasonableness. But with much deeper analysis and reflection upon the reality of human evil this explanation, I came to realize, is totally inadequate to explain life as it really is in this world.

How, then, can the reality of evil open up a path to knowing God? I will summarize how this process worked for me in numbered steps.

1. Human beings are moral creatures by nature (see above). We have an inherent and commonly shared desire to do "good" (that which we desire to do as related to our human fulfillment and happiness) and avoid "evil."

2. Observe seriously the character of human evil acts--the worst of what human beings can and have done to each other. There is no explanation on a merely natural, practical level, for the most depraved of human evils. We are capable of horrible, heinous, wretched things. Think for yourself of examples of the most horrible things you have heard of people doing. Call to mind, for example, the things people have done to innocent children. Sexual abuse. Physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Think of the awful physical torture of other persons that human beings have engaged in. Mass murder on unimaginable scales. They are truly horrible. Words fail to capture the level of horror. They are, we sometimes say, "inhuman." Indeed, they are.

3. Although I could convince myself that good acts are explainable by the need for societal harmony and thus are simply learned on a pragmatic basis, I ran into a serious problem when I thought of the darkest, most wretched depths of the worst of human evil actions. Any explanation of the human moral compass must explain both good AND evil. If you can explain only our preference for good, but cannot explain the darkest depths of human evil, your explanation fails. It is inadequate to the reality of life as it truly is.

Continued in part 2 . . .